Millions will be vacationing this summer at national parks and hundreds of other sites managed by the National Park Service, which turns 100 this August. Robert Pahre, a political science professor at Illinois, has written extensively about the often-complex issues surrounding the parks, focusing especially on Yellowstone, where he teaches a course each summer on the politics of national parks (now also online). His book in progress, “Telling America’s Stories,” describes how the NPS presents the history of westward expansion on the Great Plains. Pahre spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
What should we value or understand about the parks or park system that maybe gets missed?
The “crown jewel” parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite or Grand Canyon are famous for their natural beauty, reflecting the fact that the national parks are fairly unspoiled. Other than parks in Alaska, however, almost none of them are really intact. They have lost original species, and have damaged watersheds, air pollution and other human impacts. While the crown jewels help us appreciate the beauty of nature, they also teach us about the ways that humans affect even the most special, highly protected places.
Another thing that people should appreciate is that about half of the 411 park service sites are actually historic sites. They include the memorials in Washington, D.C., Civil War battlefields, presidents’ homes and places like Independence Hall in Philadelphia. They also include sites like the Trail of Tears, the Manzanar relocation camp in California and the African-American settlement in Nicodemus, Kansas. Illinois sites include the Lincoln Home in Springfield and the new Pullman National Monument in Chicago.
We want to see the national parks as preserving nature in its original state, but is that the case?
People often wanted to preserve a park because its natural resources were already being lost. Most of the Great Smoky Mountains were logged before they became a park. The Central Dunes, the most beautiful part of the Indiana Dunes region, were destroyed to make room for a steel mill. Many parks began their life as damaged goods. That damage poses a challenge for the National Park Service on day one of a park’s life.
For most visitors, the damage will be most obvious in terms of wildlife species lost before the park was established. You won’t see bison at most parks on the Great Plains, even though settlers would have seen them at Scotts Bluff in Nebraska, Fort Laramie in Wyoming and all the other sites along the historic trails. Wolves were native to most of the country, but now you’ll only see them in a few places in the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains. Those are just two missing species, but there are many more.
The parks obviously have to accommodate millions of visitors while still trying to limit the human impact. But what are the challenges beyond that?
Many parks face external threats. Grand Canyon and other Southwest parks have air pollution problems. In Colorado and Utah, the Green River that runs through Dinosaur and Canyonlands doesn’t flow naturally because of upstream dams. And even the lights and sounds from a small community 30 miles outside a park can disrupt one’s experience of the natural environment there, as I found out when backpacking recently in Great Sand Dunes in Colorado.
Dealing with those external threats means that parks have to work with the communities outside them. The NPS tries to talk to nearby polluters. It asks towns whether they can get by with fewer lights at night. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any authority to make people change. Partnerships and persuasion are generally the tools it has available.
Problems also arise in reintroducing species to parks. Visitors won’t notice work involving most small species, but some reintroductions are more visible. For example, bison, wolves and grizzly bears all wander out of Yellowstone onto private lands. Those are the controversies that make the national news and that make it hard to restore natural ecosystems inside the parks.
What’s most important for the future of the parks?
The National Park Service worries a lot about demographic changes. After World War II, the national parks relied on political support from the white middle class – mom and dad in the station wagon with 2.1 kids and Fido the dog on a two-week road trip out West.
Back then, African-Americans were not welcome in Southern parks, some of which had segregated campgrounds. Immigrants generally came from countries where national parks played a less visible role, and they often spent their vacations visiting family back home. Such groups have traditionally not been big supporters of the national park system.
Things are changing. Asian-Americans and Latinos are discovering the national parks as their incomes increase. That’s most visible on the Pacific coast and in states like Colorado, less visible in Texas and parts of the South. Native Americans are rediscovering the parks where their people used to live. African-Americans are still underrepresented in most parks, but that also seems to be changing a little.
From the NPS perspective, it’s not clear whether nonwhite groups will want to visit the big “crown jewel” parks or whether they will prefer parks that seem more relevant to them. For example, African-Americans have discovered heritage sites like Brown v. Board of Education in Kansas, Nicodemus, Boston African American and the Selma-to-Montgomery Trail in Alabama. So far that has not translated into interest in parks like Acadia in Maine, Everglades or California’s Santa Monica Mountains.
The NPS thinks a lot about how to maintain political support by serving all the different groups of the American public. That will be a major theme in the national parks’ second century.